How is Medea a proto-feminist play?

For the play Medea, Euripides uses these themes: "fate and chance", "erring", "human irrationality and recklessness" and "historical context".

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Medea has agency, which is a very important feminist value, and one that was notable by its absence in ancient times. Abandoned by her lover, Jason, and having turned her back on her homeland, Medea is all alone in the world. Without a man or an extended family network to protect her, Medea finds herself in a very dangerous situation indeed.

In ancient Greece, one's identity was defined to a large extent by one's membership of collective entities such as family, demos, and city-state. Without this membership, people were essentially non-persons, outcasts from respectable society. That's precisely the situation that Medea finds herself in.

Yet instead of succumbing to the patriarchal values of Greek society Medea does something quite extraordinary, not to mention proto-feminist: she forges her own identity. Such rampant individualism would've been rare enough for a man at that time; for a woman it was virtually unheard-of.

Medea consciously sets out to live her life as an individual just the way she wants to, whatever the consequences. And though there's no doubt that the manner in which Medea chooses to live her life is thoroughly repellant from a moral point of view, there's something decidedly modern about the way she takes her destiny in her own hands. In form, if not in substance, therefore, Medea is very much a proto-feminist.

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We have to emphasize the prefix "proto," since the word "feminism" did not really enter the Western lexicon until the nineteenth century. However, Medea, the title character of the play, is certainly among the strongest female characters in Greek drama. Medea openly asserts her equality within her marriage to Jason when she points out the wrong he has done, pointing out in a speech to the Chorus that they "marked me when with an oath / I bound him."

She openly speaks of the unjust plight of women in Greek society, who paid a dowry "to buy . . . some man's love" only to be betrayed by the same man. But—and this is the most significant of her proto-feminist tendencies—she does not accept that women should be passive victims, warning that if a woman was deprived of her right to her husband's love and loyalty, there was "no bloodier spirit between heaven and hell."

Of course, her actions against Jason's new bride and her own children are bloody and horrifying. If it is Jason that is responsible for his betrayal, Medea's response is emotional, driven by her passions. Even if the play is somewhat sympathetic in its depiction of the title character, it is also based on contemporary beliefs about the nature of women, who were often seen as irrational and motivated by emotion alone. So Medea is blatant in its depiction of women as oppressed, and it presents audiences with a woman who resists oppression. But it does not really subvert contemporary assumptions about gender.

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What is fascinating about this play is the way in which Medea does not passively sit back and accept the injustice of what has been happening to her. Whilst of course we could argue against the extent of the revenge that she takes, she is definitely not presented as a weak female figure that is silent in the face of patriarchal injustice. Her desire to gain revenge and get even gives power to women and is an example of how women can operate to assert themselves in the face of patriarchal oppression.

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Medea can be seen as a proto-feminist play in many ways, including the following:

* Medea feels aggrieved by a man but, instead of simply accepting this situation, she asserts her own power. She assumes that she has just as much right to act in this way as any man does.

* When Creon wants to banish her, she doesn't hesitate to argue on her own behalf, and her arguments prove persuasive. In other words, she assumes that she has the right to speak (as well as to act) as a man might do.

* Medea displays the same kind of concern with her reputation that a man might display. She takes her public status seriously.

This list might easily be extended, but the three examples cited above should give you some idea of how the play might be read as a proto-feminist work.

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Medea is very much advocating equality for women.  The central conflict of the play is the fact that Jason can just up and leave their marriage for something better, but that she is has no stand in the case.  She makes it very clear that there is not true "cause" on Jason's part except his own selfishness. She explicitly recounts all she has done for Jason.  The fact that Medea is a foreigner in Corinth complicates matters for her because she understands that the new wife (princess of Corinth) isn't going to tolerate her presence and she is left with no where to turn. Jason tries to justify his behavior which is what ultimately sends her over the edge and drives her to take just drastic revenge on him.

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I am not sure she did, but I think the idea of the play was that a woman has rights.  Therefore, by being angry and taking revenge Medea was supporting the granting of equal rights to women, at least to a certain extent.

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In a rudimentary form, the play represents an early form of feminism in a couple of ways.  I think that the first way is that Medea actually is an active agent of her world.  Contrary to the typical Greek depiction of women who are designed to tend to the hearth and are actually more victimized by men than anything else, Medea is not this.  She demands justice or vengeance, depending on one's perspective, from Jason.  She does not find herself having to subjugate her voice to a man's and in this, one sees some early strains of feminist thought.  Additionally, Medea's characterization represents an early form of feminism in that Medea sees herself as woman first. Her designation as a wife or mother are secondary to her own feelings as a woman.  In this, one sees Medea appropriate an identity that is strongly linked to the feminist thought that suggests that women see themselves as women in the most primary of senses as opposed to seeing themselves in socially constructed roles with socially constructed responsibilities.  Medea does not do this.  Finally, I think that the play shows an equality between the genders.  Simply put, Medea is as rotten of a character as Jason.  While her actions might be explained or rationalized, the killing of children is abhorrent, almost as bad as Jason's using of Medea for his own personal gain and then discarding of her.  Whether it was Sophocles' intention to do so, his rendering of Medea is a feminist reading in that he shows that both genders are equally capable of cruel savagery.  One gender does not corner the market on that score, as both Jason and Medea are equally cruel human beings.

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It is feminist in the sense that it gives power to a woman.  Medea takes revenge when she is spurned.  She does not just sit back and wail, she takes action.  However, it can also be viewed as a woman being fickle and unable to accept that she'd been jilted, which is a weakness.

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